January 25th

1986 – Discovering Dinosaurs Brings the ‘Dinosaur Renaissance’ to Life

On this day in dinosaurs, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia unveiled the first permanent public exhibition that depicted dinosaurs in a new light. The ideas of the ‘dinosaur renaissance’ that began in the 1960s had finally made the mainstream enough to warrant serious consideration by museums around the world.

The Academy–first to discover a relatively complete dinosaur skeleton in the U.S. and also the first to display a dinosaur skeletal reconstruction anywhere in the world–became the first to show the new ‘warm-blooded’ dinosaurs to the world in a major way. The exhibit opened on this day in 1986 was called “Discovering Dinosaurs” and showcased their ‘rediscovery’ and transformation from lumbering lizards to complex animals in the minds of paleontologists and the public.

Discovering Dinosaurs at the Academy of Natural Sciences
Discovering Dinosaurs at the Academy of Natural Sciences, circa 1992. Photo by author.

A neon Hadrosaurus foulkii greeted visitors–casts of its famous bones were placed in anatomically correct positions behind this facade–and the illuminated image of its famous skeleton loomed large behind the fluorescent outline. Here was the Academy’s past meeting its present.

I first saw the exhibit in 1992, and as I crossed the threshold beyond the hadrosaur wall, I was ambushed by the most frightening of faces.

T. rex at the Academy of Natural Sciences
T. rex at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, circa 1992. Photo by author.

Tyrannosaurus rex assaulted the visitor in attack mode. This mount was photographed extensively for dinosaur documentaries in the late 80s and early 90s, as it was the only skeletal mount on display in the U.S. with an anatomically correct T. rex. The famous specimens in New York and Pittsburgh were still dragging their tails and wouldn’t be given scientific facelifts for years to come.

Visitors were delighted by active dinosaurs. No longer marching in solemn parades, these skeletons portrayed highly active creatures. Nests of Maiasaura eggs, Deinonychus slashing at a Tenontosaurus mother while her young scurried away, a bucking Chasmosaurus, and a majestic Corythosaurus were all a wonderful tribute to the diversity of Cretaceous dinosaurs.

The exhibit has been enhanced in recent years, but it still retains the magic it displayed when it first opened. Standing next to the gigantic leg bones of Ultrasauros was a great a thrill for me as a boy, and doing so remains one of the highlights of any visit to the Academy today.

Though the great halls of American paleontology are nearly all renovated (with the Yale-Peabody and Smithsonian collections undergoing a rejuvenation over the next few years), the modest Academy–now ‘of Drexel University’–can always say, “we were the first to take visitors to a scientifically accurate version of the Cretaceous.” And I can always proudly state that the Academy of Natural Sciences is where I first began “Discovering Dinosaurs.”

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